Recently when I revisited the New Testament book of II Corinthians in our Bible in 2 Hours series, I noticed something that never before had jumped out to me so vividly. I even had it highlighted in yellow already from a prior reading, but in none of my earlier studies had I absorbed the jarring message that came leaping off the page when I read it this time.
Thematic in II Corinthians is Paul’s defense of his own good character and apostleship. Over and over again, he distinguishes himself by argument in order to prove his legitimacy. Three times (II Corinthians 4:6-10; 11:7, 11:22-29) he delineates a smattering of details, not of his own greatness, but rather of his suffering because in Paul’s mind, true credibility of Christian leadership is gained, not by showing off credentials of acclaim and notoriety, but by spelling out the price he had paid for authentically following Christ.
Paul puts the matter in perspective when he says, “many,” yet that very utterance is exactly what had escaped my attention before. Let’s go through this slowly so you can see what I missed.
In II Corinthians 2:17, Paul and Timothy who together sent this letter, have this to say about themselves:
“For we are not like many, peddling the Word of God, but as from sincerity,
but as from God, we speak Christ in the light of God.”
Almost matter-of-factly, Paul and Timothy obliquely say that “many” people out there who are promoting the Word of God are actually “peddling” it, exploiting God’s Word by turning it into a product or service sold for business. Those seemingly Christian people aren’t sincere, repentant saints. On the contrary, they are business opportunists.
When someone peddles the Word of God in the way that is described in II Corinthians, they are acting as unscrupulous merchants. The Greek verb καπηλεύω (kapēleúō) is only used here in this verse, but a study of it shows that it means “to huckster; to peddle; to market for fast gain.”
Yet the word that shocked me in my most recent rereading of this text was not the English word peddling. What came to me as ammonia is the word many.
I know there are hucksters out there fraudulently exploiting Christianity. But I have never told myself until some weeks ago that the Bible very plainly reveals to us, especially when you see it in the original Greek, that there may be far more hucksters than I realized.
The Greek here is hoi polloi (οἱ πολλοὶ; pronounced in English as hoy puh loy’), and it means “the many.” In other words, the implication of what Paul and Timothy here are saying is that “the many” are not sincere, and not from God, not speaking in Christ in the sight of God.
Remember Jesus said to let the wheat grow with the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). Yes, I know tares are there. But are the tares “the many,” and the wheat “the few”? After all, Jesus also said, “Many (polloi; πολλοὶ) are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).
Do the “many” peddlers of II Corinthians 2:17 outnumber the “few” sincere church leaders of Matthew 22:14?
As Christians, we need to be sober about the reality of the context we are in.
Other verses corroborate the point:
Jesus says in Matthew 10:16-17, “Behold! I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves . . . so beware of people.”
Likewise, the apostle Peter says, “Be of sober spirit; be on the alert! Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8).
The apostle further said to none other than the church elders of Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock” because “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28-29).
According to God’s Word, wolves reside in the church at the elder level. Wolves are selected to serve as church elders. Thus Paul warned authentic church elders in Ephesus to be on guard for themselves, not just for the flock, because wolves devour church elders just as much as sheep since every real church elder is at once a sheep (John 10:1-16).
This month I teach a course called Faith Recovery designed for disciplemakers and believers who feel demoralized and possibly disillusioned by scandals caused by wolves in the evangelical movement. We will look together at beautiful truths in Scripture that awaken us to real Christianity. I also hope to help those whose faith has been deconstructed to rebuild their faith on the Rock, so they can withstand new storms.
The many (hoi polloi) need to hear the truth, and they need to see the truth embodied. Believers like you and me who are willing, as Paul and Timothy were, to endure hardship for the sake of love have a ministry to them for the sake of Christ our Savior.
I hope you will join us.
Sarah Sumner, Ph.D., MBA
President, Right On Mission